This article was originally posted at Hoyden About Town on June 23, 2007, but has been substantially edited and updated for FWD/Forward.
This post started with me suggesting a FAQ on reclamation for the “Finally, a Feminism 101 Blog” blog: “But there’s a whole feminist magazine called Bitch and a book called The Ethical Slut, so why can’t I call you a slutty bitch?” I tried to write a one-paragraph answer, but things snowballed a little. Here’s my attempt at answering; I welcome yours, and have put in a few questions at the end.
I’ll open with a quote from Robin Brontsema’s “A Queer Revolution: Reconceptualizing the Debate Over Linguistic Reclamation”:
Laying claim to the forbidden, the word as weapon is taken up and taken back by those it seeks to shackle, a self-emancipation that defies hegemonic linguistic ownership and the (ab)use of power. Linguistic reclamation, also known as linguistic resignification or reappropriation, refers to the appropriation of a pejorative epithet by its target(s).
As with just about any topic in feminism, when stripped to the bone, reclamation is about power. The kyriarchal position is that people with power get to set the agenda, control the discourse, define people in pejorative terms, and decide what is or isn’t offensive – not only to themselves, but to others. They place themselves firmly in the subject position, and unilaterally assume the role of making decisions for less powerful people – the objects.
Feminism and disability activism are about turning that dominance model on its head in every realm, including language. One recurring feature of feminist discussion about pejorative speech is that the person with the lesser power gets to decide what is offensive to them, and that we should be listening to their voices, not those of the dominant group. In the case of sexist language, women have the voices that count, the voices that all need to listen to. For racist speech, women of colour. For classist speech, poor women. For ableist speech, disabled women. For anti-lesbian speech, lesbian women. Fattist speech, fat women. And so on, and so on.
Linguistic reclamation is the re-appropriation of a term used by those in power to demean and disparage those in a less powerful group. One way in which women refuse the object position and reclaim their subjectivity is to take back control of pejorative terms such as “bitch”, “slut”, “crip”, “gimp”, “chick”, “crone”, and “harridan”. Defused, a reclaimed word can become an in-group identifier, with a positive, powerful spin. It’s all about who gets to define “us” – “them” or “us”? Reclamation is about refusing to let others define your group, set the parameters, or establish the meanings. In some instances, reclamation is about reclaiming not just an arbitrarily-defined pejorative word, but about proudly reclaiming the pejorative meaning, when it is based in the fear of women speaking their minds, defending themselves, not letting their personal value be defined by their sexual worth to patriarchy.
Here’s a smorgasbord of examples of reclamatory language. Going by the principle of “In their own words”, I’ve pulled out snippets of discussion about or explanation of the specific reclaimed terms in a few cases.
Crip, Gimp, Mad, and Retard
When talking about reclamation and disability, “Crip” is the word that springs most readily to mind. Not only are individuals with all sorts of disabilities referring to themselves proudly and defiantly as crips, but an entire academic field is springing into being, dubbed Crip Theory.
Crip theory takes the social model further and critiques disability theory. Rather than aiming to normalise disability and help disabled people to “fit in” to society as disability theory and neoliberalism do, this theory argues that society itself needs to be radically changed. Crip theory argues that disabled people are transforming our world into a more democratic, diverse, flexible place — by resisting oppressive social structures and calls for normalisation and assimilation, by living with pride and self-esteem, by speaking about their experiences of pain and pleasure, by expressing their sexuality, and by forming communities of support, love, activism and interdependence.
(Women, Disabled, Queer: Working together for our sexuality and rights, AWID International Forum 2008, via Creaworld.)
In “How dare I say ‘crip’?”, Victoria Brignell writes of her use of the word “crip:”
The crucial difference now is that it’s disabled people themselves who are using the word.
It’s part of a trend towards “reclaiming” language for our own purposes. We know full well that when we say the word crip, it will shock and startle – or at least raise eyebrows. It will grab able-bodied people’s attention and make them take notice of us. It forces able-bodied people to confront our disability. Whereas in the past able-bodied people used the word against us, we are now using it against able-bodied people. […] it’s when disabled people themselves use the word that it has the most desirable impact. When it comes from our lips, it becomes a linguistic tool in the struggle for the social inclusion of disabled people.
Eli muses about the etymology of the word “crip” in “Thinking about the word crip”:
I know where crip comes from in disability communities—the long histories of folks who have had cripple used against us. We have taken the word into our own mouths, rolled it around, shortened it, spoken it with fondness, humor, irony, recognition. And yet I can’t remember the first moment I heard the shortened, reclaimed version (nor, for that matter, the longer pain-infused original), when I adopted it as my own, started calling myself a queer crip. What are the specifics to this history and etymology? Who said it first in which spaces; how did it catch on; when was it first written down as a way of inscribing pride and resistance; how did it come to be passed from person to person over the years so that now I find myself thinking, “But didn’t crip just arise organically from disability communities, movements, cultures?” These are the questions to map out personal and communal etymologies that have very little to do with the Oxford English Dictionary, often thought of as the final authority on the history and etymology of English words.
Confluere carries a series of buttons declaring “Lame is Sexy”, “Lame is Good”, “Fuck Pity/Crip Pride”, and “Crips & Trannies Need to Pee Too”. Gimpgirl markets a variety of merchandise at: No Pity City, where those at the intersection of feminism and disability activism can assert their pride. There are many reclamatory blogs, from Bad Cripple, Crip Chronicles, and and Cripchick to Crip College and Crip Critic. And it doesn’t stop there – check out The Gimp Parade, the gimp_vent community at Livejournal, Gimp on the Go travel magazine, and the very active GimpGirl community.
Wheelchair Dancer extends our understanding of crip/gimp reclamation in a wonderful post about gender and embodiment that is difficult to encapsulate in a pullquote – read the whole thing at “Butch/Femme — Crip”:
A while back in this post, I spoke of bones and muscle. I’d like to go back to that place. I am drawn there as a dancer and as a sexual person. The bones of my body hold true for me; my muscles are what my body has given me. So even when my joints are unstable and my muscles torque and spasm, I recognize in these places parts of my deepest self. I strive to hold on to these selfs in every day life and in dance. I strive to bring them to the street and to the stage. Does desiring muscle and bone make me butch and deny me femme as positions from which I can navigate the world?
This, I think, is crip, is gimp. It is an understanding of the sexuality of the deepest and rawest parts of the body — it is not so much a focus on gender presentation and on responses to gendered roles. It is an answer to the call of the fibres, the sinews, the fluids, and the infinite structure of the bones.
Moving on from these words for physical disability, you can delve into the reclamation of pejorative terms for neurologically atypical people. The most striking example is possibly Mad Pride, a movement that fights for the rights of people labelled with psychiatric illnesses and affected by abusive mental health systems. Ira Socol argues (somewhat controversially) for “Retard Theory”, at SpeEdChange.
At Biodiverse Resistance, inReclaiming words: Who can reclaim what?, Shiva wrestles with the thorny issues of who can validly reclaim which terms within the widely diverse disability community:
A pattern i find particularly interesting that crops up repeatedly is the ambiguity of how widely words can be reclaimed – just where are the boundaries of the group allowed to do the reclaiming? – which seems to me to feed into much bigger questions about identity politics and whether it’s unitive or divisive, the fluidity of identities and just how “self-defined” identities relate to those defined from outside or “above”, etc – which is of particular interest to me with regard to my strong feeling that all people who are oppressed or discriminated against because of biological or cultural difference have common interests and parallel experiences, and have much to gain from allying with one another – yet at the same time, the identities of individual minority groups can be fiercely and jealously guarded, and there is a fuzzy and incredibly difficult (for me, anyway) to locate line between alliance, analogy and appropriation
I am personally less familiar with the world of neuroatypicality, and the words aren’t mine to reclaim, so perhaps those who identify as neurologically atypical might feel free to discuss more in comments.
Bitch, Girl, Slut, and Cunt
Bitch magazine‘s About page sums up the way many women think about the reclamation of the word “bitch”:
The writer Rebecca West, back in the day, said, “People call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat.” We’d argue that the word “bitch” is usually deployed for the same purpose. When it’s being used as an insult, “bitch” is an epithet hurled at women who speak their minds, who have opinions and don’t shy away from expressing them, and who don’t sit by and smile uncomfortably if they’re bothered or offended. If being an outspoken woman means being a bitch, we’ll take that as a compliment, thanks.
Linuxchix and its subgroups, “grrltalk” and “grrls-only” were the subject of a debate in which some interlocutors whined that reclamatory language was an inappropriate “Special Privilege!” for women:
I think it’s more about being ironic than about having special “privileges”. And the irony wouldn’t work if you aren’t a part of the group in question. [Cliff Crawford]
Insider language often can include the same words which when used by an outsider are derogatory but when used by an insider are a friendly sign of inclusion. [Shulamit]
Slut has been used for many years as a way to shame women out of their sexuality. We think sluts are adults of any gender or orientation who love sex and welcome it into their lives in whatever form feels best to them.
And possibly the most taboo anti-woman expletive of all, “cunt”, commonly called just “the c word”, the one my grandmother steadfastedly refused to explain to my mother, has been reclaimed by feminists – including the author of Cunt: A Declaration of Independence, Inga Muscio. From the Library Journal review:
Muscio encourages women to reclaim the word “cunt”, rejecting its negative connotations and reincarnating it as a symbol of women’s power and strength. She invites women to disregard the derogatory messages they receive about their bodies and their womanhood: both “the anatomical jewel”, as she terms it, and the essence of femaleness.
Kate Townshend, in her War of Words article on The F-Word blog, discusses the reclamation of the word “Feminist”:
In order to effect a shift in the meaning of a particular word we need to use language in a more general sense to frame it. That we talk about feminism at all, that the debates still exist and are invigorated is a crucial and continuing victory. Male gaze has always positioned women as objects to be seen, decorative, visual creatures. Feminism and its associated movements announce women as creatures to be heard as well.
Blogger Bitch, Ph.D. explains her blogonym:
So I think that’s kind of the thing about bitching. If you’re doing it all alone, and it’s falling on deaf ears, and you feel powerless, it’s easy to feel like bitching is pointless. And that, of course, is why some people call other people bitches–to try to isolate them, marginalize what they’re doing, keep other women from joining them in bitching. But when bitchy women start bitching at each other, and then bitching together in a kind of bitches coven, it does make a difference. It makes you realize you’re not alone, and you do have the right to feel ticked off about whatever’s twisting your knickers, and hey, now that you mention it, my panties are in a bunch too, and why the fuck don’t clothing manufacturers make underwear that doesn’t ride up your crack? […] And the cacophany of bitchiness gets so loud that everyone else finally hears it and realizes that they need to move the hell over to where we are and include us in their conversations, and join our conversations, bring us into the party, or else the party is effectively over.
For the record…a bitch doesn’t need permission, tolerance or acceptance to celebrate the wonderful diversity that is me.
Empowerment gave me that.
You feel me?
Fuck you if it intimidates you…if you anticipated gratitude…if you prefer submission…if you are more comfortable with Toby.
I stopped trying to put The Man at ease years ago.
Uppity, Fat, and Angry
Reclamation isn’t limited to nouns. Just as Bitch PhD, Bitch Magazine, and Angry Black Bitch are reclaiming the act of bitching, other feminists are reclaiming adjectives: “angry”, “uppity”, “fat”, and even “hairy”, all terms used to denigrate and dismiss women who aren’t adequately submissive or ornamental.
Uppity Women Magazine proclaims on its banner:
This is a place for uppity women. You know who you are. You are a woman who refuses to keep your place, to limit yourself in any way, to live down to others’ expectations. You are a woman who gets up again and again, every time life knocks you down. You’ve learned how to survive. Now it’s time to learn how to prosper.
“Uppity” isn’t confined to antifeminism; it has been used in attempts put activists of all kinds into place, including people of colour (possibly the most well known use in the USA) and disability activists. Ragged Edge magazine reviewed Harriet McBryde Johnson’s Too Late To Die Young:
The chapter “Art Object” is the story of her contretemps with the New York Times Magazine photographer sent to record her image for the “Unspeakable Conversations” article. But in Johnson’s recounting of the test of wills between a New York artist used to seducing her subjects into pliability before the camera and the immovable object that is the attorney Johnson at her finest, we see both the mindset of the “uppity cripple” — which most of us will cheer — and its very unsettling effect on those not used to power in wheelchairs coming from driver rather than battery.
“Protesting is contrary to the teachings of Charleston’s civil religion, politeness,” she tells us. But she’s an uppity crip, and her book is a manifesto for uppity crips everywhere: “I believe that living our strange and different lives, however we choose and manage to live them, is a contribution to the struggle.”
Krista Scott’s thesis “Girls Need Modems!”: Cyberculture and Women’s Ezines quote a FaT GiRL ezine article, “A Fat, Vulgar, Angry Slut” by Betty Rose Dudley:
I usually tell people that I am a fat, white, working-class bitch who comes from a small town in the slightly southern, mostly midwestern state of Missouri:I am an angry woman, a very angry woman: I am a slut. A fat, lecherous, rude, crude, and very nice slut: I am tacky and vulgar. I wallow in vulgarity, consume it with the hunger fat girls are famous for: I make words and music my own. I take back my power: I no longer give you the power to tell me who to be or how to behave: I am a vulgar woman. I am a powerful female.
for people who don’t apologize for their size.
Big Fat Blog has taken a slightly different approach to reclamation, arguing for a broad, society-wide reclamation of the word “fat” – one not restricted to use by fat people.
Fat is a descriptor. It is what it is. Fat is fat. Fat is not bad. What’s worse is that actions like this put fat people, collectively, in a bad position. The supposition here is that we’re so “offended” by the use of the word “fat” that we don’t want anyone to use it.
Truth be told, I say go for it. This is a word that we should own and ultimately is a word that should empower. It’s not something to be ashamed of. It’s not something that other people should get in trouble for – no. It’s ours.
“The Bitch King” talks about power (read the whole thing at the link):
I transgress when I define myself.
Naming is power and naming myself gives me power. When I define myself, I become the subject of this sentence.
Because the Bitch King does not negotiate.
Western culture perpetuates this myth that god gave Adam the power to name. He named Eve, along with the rest of the world. This story is a cultural symbol of gendered power relations. Man becomes the center of the universe. Woman becomes a part of the scenery.
For too long, women have been the objects of naming, labeled by males, defined by patriarchal standards.
I write my own history because the time for revolution is now.
By defining myself, I exert authority and agency. I reclaim what has been taken from me.
There are passionate arguments made for the position that some words can’t successfully be reclaimed. Some people feel that the terms are inseparable from their pejorative meanings, that the pejorative meanings are unreversible, and that attempts at reclamation are at best misguided, or at worst, counter-productive. Blackademic has written about her feelings about the controversies and debates on the reclamation of racist language.
lost clown, at Angry For A Reason, is pessimistic about all attempts to reclaim gendered language:
Men have defined our sexuality; they have defined words used to describe women’s sexuality and behaviors such as bitch, slut, whore, cunt, etc. Where are the positive words to define women’s sexuality? The lack of their existence is proof that women have never defined our own sexuality. When we attempt to “reclaim” these words, and give them a new meaning they remain hurtful to us, as they retain their original meanings and are still used negatively by others. An example: the American Heritage Dictionary defines the term bitch as “a female canine animal, esp. a dog” and “a spiteful or overbearing woman.” I am neither, and no matter how positively I use the term it will always mean a female dog and a spiteful woman. As long as we continue to use the words and behaviors defined by the oppressors we will never break the cycle of oppression; we will never truly be free. Female sexuality can never be reclaimed; it must be defined in the first place, something that has never happened. Reclamation is misleading, and an ultimate dead end. We can never reclaim anything that was never ours in the first place.
Dr. Crazy, at Reassigned Time makes the (rather obvious?) point that changing language won’t put an end to oppression:
All language is gendered. All language regulates behavior, determines identity, and ultimately polices the individual. Claiming or reclaiming a particular word isn’t going to make language itself any less oppressive. At the end of the day, if we successfully “reclaim” Bitch, or Crazy, or Slut, or Whore, or Cunt, another word is going to crop up in its place to “oppress opinionated women and to marginalize stereotypically feminine behaviors in men and women.” The point in any project of reclamation as far as I can tell is not that it’s going to stop oppression. Rather, it’s to change the terms of the discussion.
Dr Crazy elaborates on her own moniker in the comments, hitting one of my pet peeves (“don’t you have any real activism to get on with?”) in the process:
my being “Dr. Crazy” is actually ironic, rather than some kind of meaningful appropriation. I mean, call me crazy, call me a bitch – whatever – don’t we have more important things to talk about?
Dr Crazy’s argument is, to at least some extent, an argument against a position that most reclaimers don’t take. Strict linguistic determinism, or the “strong” version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has been long since discredited. However, weaker versions of Whorfian linguistic relativism have retained currency and relevance under scrutiny, though they are the subject of many a late-night debate. I believe that language both reflects cultural values and reinforces them. Dramatic changes can’t be imposed unilaterally from above; however, the ways in which we speak about our power structures and ethics do feed back into the ways we think about them. Reminders (either self-directed or external) to use language in non-harmful ways may have the dual effect of both (a) not doing further harm!, and (b) helping to inscribe and reinscribe less hierarchical ways of thinking.
In the words of Whorf himself:
We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way – an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language. The agreement is, of course, an implicit and unstated one, but its terms are absolutely obligatory; we cannot talk at all except by subscribing to the organization and classification of data which the agreement decrees.
(For a densely nuanced reinterpretation, read Mark Liberman’s take on Whorf here at the Language Log.)
Concerns have also been raised about commercialised corporate meta-reclamation: re-re-appropriation? Bitch PhD commenter Susan writes:
I love Bitch magazine, and am sympathetic to the goal of feminists’ reclaiming of the term bitch. However, I also know that the word bitch has been commercially appropriated as a “hip” fashion statement or as a “sexy” reference to being some man’s bitch. Kind of like the rhinestone-encrusted t-shirts I see with the words porn star emblazoned across the front. Either could be used as a reclamation of a term or as a questioning of ways women are stigmatized (for doing social critique or for ways we use our sexuality). But both could also be used to commercially co-opt that impulse in order to reinforce negative perceptions of “bitches” and porn stars.
I have my own issues with some “reclamations”. Women who are privileged to have never been involved in sex work commonly use the words “tart” and “whore”. They may have had these words used against them in anger as generalised misogynistic epithets – does this “lend” them the word for reclamation, or does their privilege, their position in the hierarchy allow them the unexamined use of these words? “Nazi” is my pet peeve – women labelled “boob nazis” and “feminazis” may be rightfully angry about being slapped with these terms by asshats, but are their reclamation attempts really unproblematic in our world? I don’t think so.
Over to you
Which words have you reclaimed? Where are the reclamatory grey areas? What’s off-limits? Have any of these examples made you think, challenged your assumptions, pissed you off? I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences.